Friday, December 12, 2014

Story Seed - No Deal

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From the scorched desert sands the Fall didn't seem very aptly named. The cliffs and broken foothills that gave the Fall its name rose from the dry blasted lands to tower hundreds of feet above the sun baked sand and clay.  Beyond the Fall the land grew sharply more hospitable, and there was even a river that ran less than a mile from these forsaken wastes.

The Fall survived by building into the cliffs themselves, and via cunningly engineered tunnels that fed water through the stone of the plateau from the river.  The Fall eked out an existence on the edge of hell, and somehow I had survived hell itself and returned. The 'bot had deposited me within the shadow the Fall's main gates and then vanished, it had satisfied its programming to the extent that it felt it had honored our bargain.

I managed to signal those within for aid, and within the hour I was resting in a medical suite receiving fluids through a tube into my arm, and curative salves for my sunburnt skin through robotically controlled nozzles. I'd have been appreciative had I been self aware at that time.  In hindsight I certainly appreciate it now.

It'd been ten days and I still felt thirsty, but that was psychological according to the sawbones. I'd had very little in the way of scrip and so I'd pawned my mapper, and a few other bits of tech.  It gave me enough to pay the sawbones and keep myself fed. The interior streets and corridors of the Fall were cool enough and isolated from weather so I slept where I could.  The people were private enough that I didn't get any trouble, so far anyway. My sixgun I'd kept; it was worth plenty, but it was the last thing I had, and my only means of defense.

Turned out that was the right choice. I spied the Boss McKenna's tubby second, Charles Stuber, as he emerged from a saloon.  Thankfully he hadn't seen me.  Most everybody, McKenna included, called him Chuckles. I don't have a clue why, he was as stupid as he was fat, and not at all funny. Thankfully he was also not paying attention.  I shadowed him until he was between the open cavern neighborhoods the Fall used to feel less like a big cave (which it was) and more like a gentile town (which it was not).

Getting up right behind him I thumbed the hammer back, pressing cold steel into folds of fat, "Don't turn around Charlie. Believe me when I tell you that I'd rather face justice here in the Fall than whatever you and McKenna have to offer in Angel's Dig." The big man froze, he was none too bright, but still smart enough to know when somebody had him dead to rights. "The Boss figured that any chance was more than she could accept eh? Sent you here to finish the job if the sun hadn't?" I prodded him back into motion with my gun, forcing him down a dark alley.

He stumbled into motion, nodding and trying to crane his neck around enough to see me, "I don't come back and she's gonna know you're alive. Gonna send everything she can for your sorry skin." I think he thought he sounded tough.

I laughed bitterly and ground the barrel of my sixgun into his kidney, "And you want me to let you live right? Let you go back and claim I'm dead, or maybe that you didn't find me?"

He nodded enthusiastically. "Graham, jus-just listen man," he sounded suddenly desperate, his brain must have caught up with his situation. "Th-this doesn't have to go down like this. L-like you said, j-just lemme go. I ain't no fool, you got me beat."

"McKenna would see through you in an instant." He started to protest, but I just kept right talking, "Hell, I bet you already sent her a wave didn't you? Told her you didn't find my body out in the blasted lands." Slowly he nodded. "Man, you are as dumb as a box of sand," I told him.

"Be reasonable!" he pleaded.

"No deal." His bulk muffled the gunshot.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Five Thousand and One Hundred(ish)!

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Thank you all for your continued support!

Back Issues #11 - Do I Know You? - Part 2

Last week I discussed and explored the idea of taking the familiar and changing it, altering it, and making it unique and new again for a game. In doing so I re-worked the traditional fantasy Ork from the stupid and brutish green skinned dungeon denizen to a brown skinned, forest dwelling farmer race known for their woodworking skill. Physically the change was minor, socially they fill a wholly new role in the world. This week I am going revist this same idea, but transfer it into a science-fiction setting ... 

Issue #11: Do I Know You? - Part 2

The Ork isn't really a staple of many science fiction RPGs; off the top of my head I can think of two, Shadowrun and Warhammer 40,000 (pictured right). In both instances much of the standard features are still present, the physical power, the mental weakness, and the tendency toward barbarism. Both games & settings have put their own spin on the Ork. In Shadowrun they are a subspecies of man, have only a slight reduction in mental and social skills compared to the baseline, and lack the green skin tone that they are often known to have. In the 40k universe Orks are a fungus. No joke, they grow from spores in pods beneath the surface of any world so infected by them; props to the guys at Games Workshop for that one.

Given the high technology nature of most science fiction RPGs, and given what I did with Orks last week, one may be expecting a technologically advanced race, zipping about in spacecraft, firing laser weapons, teleporting from place to place and more.

Think again.

Physically we start with the stock ork and lengthen their arms and make them even more heavily muscled, truly possessed of massive physical strength. The legs we shorten and reverse the knees, so that the ork now walks digitigrade. With much of the power in the ork's body in the arms and chest the creature now walks hunched and stooped over, using its knuckles, which are covered in thick leathery and bony studded plates. The lower jaw is further enlarged and the tusks are modified to point outward, for goring attacks on the charge. The changes wrought would yield a creature somewhat crossed between a gorilla and a warthog or wild boar.

Mentally we make the ork a natural predator, cunning, quick to learn, and naturally possessed of tactics and teamwork skills to flank and outmaneuver its prey with its pack. Instead of a sentient being the ork is now a savage apex predator of a far flung world. Territorial in the extreme and powerful enough to defeat one or more fully armed and armored men on its own, able to take down even greater numbers or large prey when working within a pack. This beast is rather inconveniently located on one of the few habitable worlds that humankind has found thus far. Worse, its natural environment lies within the forests and plains where valuable resources, or important agricultural land is found. Pushing the creature into confrontation with humanity almost from day one.

Same questions as last time folks. What do you think? Is this a race that you would be interested in seeing in a game, or is this instead too different? 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Story Seed - Another Deal

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She swung the cylinder, smiling at the muted click as each chamber passed by the breech.  "He's dead?"

"Y-yes ma'am, he must be, the blasted lands are too dry for a man to walk across. There's no way he's alive." Chuckles didn't sound convinced; he sounded worried.  The boss was playing with her gun again, and that made Chuckles nervous. "He's gotta be," he added lamely.

"He must be? He's gotta be? You don't sound very convinced, and if you aren't convinced how is it that I am supposed to feel Charles? How am I supposed to feel confident that that son of a filthy dog Graham is dead?" Boss McKenna swung her feet to the floor and snapped her wrist to the side; the sixgun's cylinder snapped shut with an ominous click. "Answer. Me. That. Charles."

The big man whimpered, stepping back from the rickety desk. His pudgy face was always damp with sweat, but now it was all but flowing down his jowls.  "B-boss, there's no way, nobody ever done it. Chasin' that 'bot down'll be the death of him." Chuckles nodded, as though to convince himself, and wiped at his face with a sodden handkerchief.

Jamie McKenna stood; all five foot three inches of her.  She was easily a foot shorter well over a hundred pounds outweighed, and yet both of the people in the hot tent knew whom was looking down on whom. Boss McKenna ruled Angel's Dig like a dictator, the town was nominally independent of the excavation, but in truth it may as well have been entirely a single commercial venture.  If McKenna had had it her way it would have been. "I'm not feeling very convinced Charles," she said. "What about that damned 'bot? What if it get's it in its damned head to obey the first law, hmmm?"

Chuckles goggled, he certainly hadn't thought of that.  His jowls wobbled as he swallowed hard, "Uh, uh, uh, th-that ... ya, think Graham an' the robot mighta made it all the ways to the Fall?"

"Holy shit Chuckles, did you just have yourself a thought?" Boss McKenna asked.  The fat man nodded nervously. "Well, damn, I guess maybe I'll have to reward you for that. Now get your fat ass to the Fall. Find Graham, kill ... no ... no, bring him back. I want my scrip back, even if I have to drop him into the Dig until he rots. One way or the other I'll get my scrip out of him." She picked up the gun and slid it into her shoulder holster.

"That was the deal, and nobody breaks a deal with me."

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nuts & Bolts #10 - The New Skin

Yeah, that's Barney, but it's still DOOM under the hood.

When it comes to RPGs there are few constants, but one of those is that if you get enough gamers in a room as ask what their favorite RPG is you will not get 100% agreement.  Sometimes "enough gamers" is two. Regardless, we gamers have been tinkering for decades now trying to make the "best" game we can. Sometimes that involves setting, sometimes it involves rules, and sometimes it involves mechanics of random number generation.

Players and GMs have also been more than willing to take the "takeout menu" approach as well "I'll take a little from column A and a little from column B" mixing and matching rules between games, mixing the setting from one game with the mechanics from another, or even mixing and matching genres.  All's fair in love and war ... and gaming.

Skinning and hacking are complicated subjects. There's not really a clear demarcation between the two, and plenty of ways to approach the subject.  I'm not too smart though so I'm going to try anyway. I'm going to start with re-skinning, because ... I dunno, reasons?

Re-Skinning is something that has probably been around for almost as long as RPGs themselves.  To me re-skinning is when you take a game's mechanics and leave them alone, and simply put a new setting, and setting terminology, on top.  So long as you aren't changing game mechanics, its a skin, once you start touching the way the game resolves things and works that is a Hack (I'll do another column for Hacking).  This is where games with "universal" mechanics/systems come to play.  Stuff like FATE and GURPS where the selling point is that you can use it for whatever you want and never have to learn something new.

Re-skinning often comes into play when you have popular settings that don't have an official RPG.  Take Mass Effect as an example. In the year and change that Monte Cook's Cypher system has been in the wild I have seen at least two different instances of people skinning the Cypher system to serve as a mechanical foundation for Mass Effect.  Likewise I have seen similar attempts for the AGE system used in Green Ronin's Dragon Age RPG, to skin it for Mass Effect. I'd wager there are several more systems, and dozens of examples across those just to reskin RPGs for Mass Effect. Seems like BioWare and some lucky RPG publisher could make some money if they wanted (and from what I hear BioWare isn't interested).

It's probably safe to say that to some degree most RPGs players have done some re-skinning at one point or another.  It could be as simple as a home grown setting for D&D with some minor changes to clerical gods, or it could involve turning something into something else.

Mutants & Masterminds isn't billed as a universal system, and if you've ever played it you probably know that it is keyed toward comic book style game play.  At it's heart though is a very smartly designed point-based system that can be used to simulate darn near any kind of power, be they super, magic, mutant, or something else.  Internal to the game this is done with a finite list of basic effects that are built up with modifiers and skinned to fit the effect desired with descriptors. In other words, at the mechanics level, a gun and a super power energy blast use the same basic rules, they inflict Damage (the effect) at range (a modifier). The only difference is the descriptor which describe the context of the mechanical effect; bullets for one and fire for the other for example.

This is a perfect system to lay a skin on and use for whatever you want.  So long as what you want is a game that will feel like a comic book.  And that is what brings us to the first big talking point.

Game mechanics have a certain "feel" to them.

You can skin Mutants and Masterminds all you want but it will always feel and play a little like a comic book game due to the way it is designed.  You could change some of the rules but that would be a Hack, and that is a different column.

When you are looking to play in a certain setting, keeping in mind the tone and style of the gameplay you want is crucial when you pick the game system/mechanics you are going to use.  It doesn't matter what setting you use you are probably not going to get an "old school" feel if you are using White Wolf's World of Darkness as you mechanical system. Likewise you'll not get a very superheroic game in the Marvel Universe if you are using the 2nd Edition Shadowrun rules. The mechanics provide a certain feel to the gameplay, just like the setting does so when you are trying to find a system to skin a game setting onto the feel of the intended gameplay experience is pretty important.

I think finding the correct feel for a skinned game comes down to two aspects: genre and tone.

Let's go back to a prior example; let's say that you really want to play some Mass Effect.  There's no RPG out there for that series so you start by looking for a system to skin.  Genre is going to make a huge difference here.  Few people are going to even consider a fantasy game like D&D, Ars Magica, or the like.  That's common sense, these games have little in common with Mass Effect and would be all but impossible to skin.  Why? Because they don't do what needs to be done mechanically.  There are no rules for modern firearms there, and while spells could take the place of the Mass Effect biotics, the whole thing wouldn't capture the feel you wanted.

You could take the current Fantasy Flight Star Wars games and try to play Mass Effect with them.  Use Force powers for biotics, build your own starships (or not), and generally just change names.  It's bound to give you a better fit for Mass Effect than D&D would.  Likewise you could skin Diablo onto something like Earthdawn get a better result than if you tried using Rifts.

There's more to skinning than picking the right mechanics for the genre.  Sure, choosing the right game to use for mechanics will make your job easier, but it also influences the tone of the game. I mentioned how the mechanics behind Mutants & Masterminds are capable of creating almost any kind or power you want a character or creature to have.  I stand by that, and really feel that there is a lot that system can do, but the tone of the game is one of superheroics, and the characters always feel extremely capable.  Combat in the M&M system isn't very deadly, and healing tends to be quick, because in comics people get beat down all the time and pop right back up a few pages later ready to face off against the big bad.

Genre-wise M&M is very flexible, I tried a fantasy game using those rules and the characters felt very authentic to a fantasy world.  The mages could sling magic, the warriors had mighty weapons, and great skill, but tonally the game wasn't anything like D&D. The magic users could cast far more spells and far more frequently than in D&D, while the less-lethal combat meant that clerics healed less and fought more; they certainly felt more militant to me.  The result was a fun game, but it wouldn't work for an old school dungeon crawl where every room and corner should bring the looming threat of potential doom.

The hard part here is that tone and genre both are informed by setting and mechanics.  Genre informs what kinds of mechanics you will need (try playing a Star Wars game without rules for starship combat), or don't need (how often do you need aircraft rules in a dungeon crawl?).  Tone informs (and is informed by) the way those mechanics work to make the players feel their character interact with the world.

Imagine how different a game feels when the only thing you change is the damage done by monsters?  If you double the amount of damage they can deal then each combat becomes a potential bloodbath where the players are far more likely to take significant injuries and risk death.  Want to make your characters feel like action heroes? Cut the monster health by half and watch as the PCs become ultra capable gods of combat, killing enemies far more easily.

Assuming you don't want to fiddle with rules changes and hack something for your game just keep in mind the genre and tone of the game you want to play as you look for a game system to skin.  keeping those aspects of the experience in mind will help you to choose the best fit for your needs, or potentially give you ideas how to tweak things for an interesting new experience.  Imagine a Star Wars game where death potentially hides behind every combat roll, or a Shadowrun game where magic is twice as dangerous to the caster and the target.


Tangential to the discussion above, but entirely related to it, is an experiment that my friend and fellow blogger +James Walls is trying.  He's calling it Quattro con Carnage - Tannryth: Realm of … Something and in the coming few weeks he is going to run a campaign in eight sessions across four systems.  The idea is to keep the setting and the characters the same and see how each system changes the feel of game; essentially reskinning the same characters and setting onto four systems.

He's invited me to take part in this, and I plan to write a couple columns about it; after each system change I am expecting to write about the change that each system has brought to the tone of the game.  I expect to find that these changes will impact the sessions, the characters, and the play experience dramatically. I hope you all will come back and join me as I discuss this experiment, and how the above thoughts impact and are impacted by it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Story Seed - Deal

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It was so dry. I sucked on the little pebble and worked it around, but even that was failing to bring any saliva to my mouth. My canteen was empty, and the backup as well.  I stopped, kneeling down to look at the tracks.  They were growing more indistinct, getting older as I fell behind my quarry.  The ground here was either hard, nearly kiln baked from the sun, or loose like sand.  The latter often filled in any cracks in the former.  This place was death, hot dry, and inhospitable to life.

Which is why I was following my quarry deeper into the blasted lands.  A rogue robot, assuming the blowing sand didn't destroy its mobility it could survive this place long enough to emerge on the other side.  I'd not make it that far. I was already beyond the red line on my mapper. I shook my head, brushing sand out of my hat and sarape.

I was dead either way unless I caught this damn thing. I owed too much to the wrong people, so either I pulled down this bounty or I ran and probably caught a bullet. I stood up, feeling immediately woozy. Damnit, I can't be dehydrated already. I looked up and found the sun, realizing it was probably two hours later than I had thought.

I put my hand on my sixgun and used the other to retrieve the mapper from under my wrap.  The topography was fairly uniform so all I had to go on was bearing and distance.  I was a good forty miles from the last outpost. Ah shit, I really was dead already. I swallowed, or tried to; my throat was too dry and it hurt like hell.  If I turned back now, and was lucky as a two-tailed rattler, I might crawl back into the outpost and survive a little longer.  If I continued I could get my bounty, and then die out here without ever bringing it back in.

I closed my eyes.  There was no way to win.  I'd have to try and go back, if I managed to live I might get lucky and evade my debtors. Big if. Even bigger might.

A crunch sounded behind me.  I spun, my hand yanking my sixgun from its holster.  I was dehydrated however, more so than I realized; my balance was shot, my fingers were clumsy.  I toppled over, my gun slipping from my grasp and landing with a thump just before I hit dirt as well.

All I could make out were legs.  Narrow metal that terminated in spikes. Crap, the hunter was the hunted. Bad news for me I guess. I rolled to my back, looking up at my quarry.  It stared at me, a steel form imitating humanity, a poncho was draped over its body, and blowing in the dry wind. The small orb by its head zoomed toward me, hitting me with a multi-spectral scanning beam. "You doubled back?" I asked, confused.

"This unit waited. This unit has determined that you have passed beyond your maximum safe distance and will perish here without assistance," the 'bot responded.

"Well aint that just a thing? So you waited here to kill me?" I figured I may as well ask, I was already dead by any and all reckoning.

"This unit cannot allow harm to come to humans, therefore this unit waited to determine if you would pursue beyond your capable range." It head cocked to the side, "This unit fails to understand why humans insist on endangering themselves. This unit will render aid and carry you back to the nearest outpost."

"Uhh," I said, pulling my mapper up to my face by its lanyard.  My fingers fumbled with it but I finally managed to calculate our options.

"This units will return south by south-east towar-"

"No. You will take me north to the Fall.  There's a village there," I croaked, my mouth was dryer now for all the damn fool talking.

"The fall is three hours farther, this unit will -"

I interrupted the damn thing again, I wasn't sure why it was determined to help me, but I was damn sure going to force it to take me somewhere safe.  I managed to lever my sixgun up to my head, "The Fall, or I kill myself."

The robot seemed to consider it.  "This unit will comply on one condition."

Seriously, it had conditions? This thing was confusing the hell out of me. "What?" I croaked.

"This unit desires to be free.  After this unit takes you to the Fall you will cease to pursue it."



Summary - A bounty hunter tracking a rogue robot. A brush with death, and a deal upon which two lives rest.